Labour's top brass need to show more ambition

The Labour Party's apathetic attitude to the position of general secretary is indicative of a wider

Yesterday morning's scoop by Dan Hodges on Chris Lennie becoming the next General Secretary of the Labour party has sent the blogosphere a flutter. Labour List editor, Mark Ferguson, has argued that a more transparent selection process is necessary. Johanna Baxter has called for the National Executive Committee, of which she is an elected member, to make the decision on the basis of merit. And outgoing Fabian General Secretary, Sunder Katwala, has detailed why the decision will be a test case for the more open approach that Ed Miliband called for in Wales on Saturday. But the most depressing part of Dan Hodges piece is the view expressed by one party official that: "Chris [Lennie] is coming in with one brief and one brief only. Cut costs and sort out the finances. That's it."

If this is true, it shows a remarkable lack of ambition from Labour's top brass on the role of the General Secretary. Sorting the party's finances is absolutely critical but so too is reengaging the party with the public, the subject of Ed's speech on Saturday. As Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times, political parties "must loosen up or lose out".

Without an advocate in Victoria Street for the "cultural glasnost" that Nick Anstead and I called for in our 2009 Fabian pamphlet, "The Change We Need", Labour will fail to consolidate its recent increase in membership or roll out the best practice in grassroots campaigning which has been seen in a handful of local parties. There are a lot of good ideas bubbling around Labour's grassroots. The Labour Values website documents terrific examples of activist recruitment in Birmingham Edgbaston, community meetings in Blackburn, and effecting canvassing techniques in Bethnal Green and Bow among many others. But this best practice will be lost if the party does not make its roll out to the rest of the country an explicit goal of the party (and therefore of the General Secretary). Indeed, many of the reforms that Ed himself advocates are likely to be lost without someone at the top of the organisation devoted to their implementation.

But even if the cutting of costs and sorting of finances was the only role expected of the next General Secretary it would make little sense to limit the field to a veteran of Victoria Street. The Labour party has struggled with its fundraising since the cash for honours incident. High value donors had been falling away long before some disappeared in protest at Ed Miliband's election, the 1000 club (composed of donors making £1000 contributions per year) is understaffed and therefore not maximising its potential to raise cash, much of the party's additional short money has been wasted on two special advisors for each shadow cabinet member, and the effort to raise cash through online appeals from the grassroots has suffered from a degree of flat footedness especially since the general election. In all of these areas, there is much that can be learned from the charitable sector, from online campaigns, and from the US. Chris Lennie may the best candidate for the job but why narrow the field at this stage?

Important though it was for Miliband to call on Saturday for Labour party conference to be "legitimate in the way its decisions are made", it will be worth nothing if other decisions of critical importance are made behind closed doors. In addition to Mark Ferguson's important list of questions for the party and its leadership, the membership and public have a right to know the criteria for the selection of General Secretary and the composition of the short-listing panel. After going back on his support for an elected Party Chair and doing little to advance the cause of primaries that he used to endorse, Ed Miliband is on shaky ground as someone committed to modernising the party. He needs to act quickly to show that his words on Saturday were worth something.

Will Straw co-edited with Nick Anstead the Fabian Society pamphlet, "The change we need: what Britain can learn from Obama's victory". He writes here in a personal capacity.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear